Democracy. Russia. CIS.

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) and the Enduring Relevance of Historical Materialism

Posted by democratist on June 28, 2010

28th June 2010

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) was, among his many other achievements, Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics (2005-2008) and latterly ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies.

He was an extraordinary polymath and linguist; able to work in at least 10 languages (Persian, Arabic, French, German, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, and English – and with considerable knowledge of many others – his self-imposed definition of “competence” in a language was the ability to use it to write a book review and give a lecture.

Over the course of a 40-year career he produced 20 books, including Arabia without Sultans (Penguin 1974), Iran: Dictatorship and Development (Penguin 1978), Rethinking International Relations (Macmillan, 1994) Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Macmillan,1999) The World at 2000: Perils and Promises (Palgrave, 2001) and The Middle East in International Relations. Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). His output of high-quality work was truly impressive; and as of June 2010, at least five new books are still in the process of publication.

Professor Halliday was a great inspiration and mentor for Democratist, both in terms of his dedication to rationality, democracy. human rights, universal values, internationalism and “complex solidarity” with the developing world, and also in relation to the importance of “doing the work” as he put it – the need to study the history, politics and language of the countries concerned (often overlooked by academic International Relations theorists).

Halliday fully understood (in opposition to Waltz and the “Neo-realists”) the importance of looking at both the internal level of analysis (the domestic character of states), as well as the external “systemic” level (state-to-state relations).

In Rethinking International Relations, he proposed elements of  a reformulated historical materialism (shorn of its teleological and other less palatable aspects) as an alternative approach to interpreting the contemporary world.

While Democratist does not consider himself a Marxist, Halliday’s four suggested themes of reconfigured historical materialism certainly bear repeating for those of us who wish to “do the work” of analysing and explaining the historical and political development of the countries we study, and how this influences their international relations;

Determination by socio-economic factors (“material” determination).

The central activity of any society is economic production, and the main analytical questions should be considered in this context: Firstly, what is the “level of production”? Secondly, what are the systems of property and effective control that define ownership of these forces (what are the “relations of production”)? These forces (level and relations of production) combine to form a particular society – feudalism, capitalism etc – and ideas, institutions and events within a social formulation do not take place in isolation from this context.

Seen in this light the study of International Relations is best defined as the study of relations not between states, but between social formations: States should not be seen as an embodiment of national interest, but rather the interests of a specific society or social formation. The history of each state is the history of forms of social power and its legitimization. The contemporary interstate system emerged in the context of the spread of capitalism across the globe, and the subjugation of pre-capitalist societies. The socio-economic system underpins both the character of individual states and their relations to each other.

Historical determination.

The events or character of any society can only be seen in their historical context. Just as society has to be seen in a socio-economic context, so the conditions of the generation of that context, and their contingent location are central to any analysis: To understand a particular contemporary capitalist society, one has to see how it originated and what the problems and tendencies conditioned by the past are, how it limits what people consider their options, and leads them to be influenced by illusions and identifications derived usually unwittingly from the past.

The centrality of social movements in political life, both domestic and international

Classes are defined by reference to their ownership and control of the means of production; a power that is seen as defining the other forms of social power that they excercise. If within a particular state classes act to control those less powerful than themselves, they act internationally to ally with groups similar to themselves when this is beneficial, and to compete with them by peaceful or military means when rivalry is prefered.

Conflict and Revolution

Underlying the myriad events of international affairs lies social conflict, within and across frontiers; the pursuit of wealth and economic power is an important source of these events. Taking the historical determinants of specific states into account, it becomes necessary to enquire out of what historical conflicts they emerged.

Fred will be sadly missed, but the ideas he helped revive and transform will prove highly useful analytical and explanatory tools for those wishing to analyze domestic and international politics for many years to come (its influence should be fairly immediately apparent in many of the articles in this blog, not least Springtime for Dima?).

As he pointed out in Rethinking International Relations, “…historical materialism may prove to be just as relevant as it ever was as an explanatory system, and one that, in origin and development, takes as its starting point and focus of analysis that phenomenon that now more than ever dominates the world, namely capitalism.”

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